If you enjoyed the recent spy thriller Deutschland 83 on Channel 4, you can give thanks to a redoubtable old Italian lady called Nella. She was the grandmother of Walter Iuzzolino, the Italian TV executive who created – and provides the name for – Channel 4’s new foreign-language drama collection, Walter Presents.
Nella was born in the Italian part of what is now Croatia – and when Walter was a young lad, growing up in Genoa in the 1970s, she schooled him intensively in German television.
“She was always very Germanic, and so was my grandad. Values mattered. Grandpa would play the violin for 15 minutes before calling us in for dinner,” says Walter. “They liked ‘good stuff’ on the television – and for them, good meant Germanic.”
Walter was raised on Derrick, a “terrible” German cop show that ran for more than 20 years, and Kommissar Rex, an almost equally durable Austrian series in which – you’ve guessed it – the police dog solved crimes.
Fortunately for Channel 4 viewers, German television has moved on, with Deutschland 83 providing the marquee Sunday-night series to launch Walter Presents. With nearly 3 million viewers having watched episode one – a UK record for a foreign-language drama – the ratings compare favourably to Channel 4’s own drama in the same slot: the Julie Walters star vehicle Indian Summers fell to ratings of below 2 million by the end of its run.
Walter Presents will only intermittently show series in such main slots on Channel 4. But there are free box sets galore of series from across the globe waiting for you to watch at All4, Channel4’s catch-up service. And Walter Presents also has two regular slots on More4. On Fridays, it offers slick serials that tackle big themes such as politics, technology and murder. The slot kicked off with Spin – France’s answer to The West Wing – and, later next month, continues with Blue Eyes, a Swedish political thriller made all the more topical by the migration crisis.
“It tackles the rise of right-wing extremism in northern Europe in a way that no TV drama has before,” says Walter.
Walter Presents also colonises More4 on Thursday nights. First in that slot is Swedish potboiler Thicker than Water, which is the kind of family-oriented saga that would appeal to Walter’s other grandmother, Ilde.
“She was Neapolitan, a highly melodramatic character. She liked fake fur, fake nails, fake jewellery,” he says. At Ilde’s, young Walter would ask for his favourite treat – a slice of bread, covered with wet sugar – and they’d settle down in front of a Mexican telenovela called The Rich Also Cry. “Watching it with her created, for me, a vision of how television drama can absolutely move you.”
He remembers a storyline in which a child was snatched that moved Ilde to operatic floods of tears. “I remember thinking, ‘Granny’s crying, they’re taking away that woman’s child, I’m eating bread and sugar – this is ‘amazing.’” Indeed, even though Walter has now lived in London for more than 20 years, he still proudly embodies both his grandmothers. The glasses, neat neck-tie and close-cropped beard speak silently of his Croatian grandmother’s Germanic precision – yet when he talks, out comes that melodramatic streak, and the passion for his work that makes him almost gabble.
With strong echoes of its Danish cousin The Legacy, Thicker than Water sees a Swedish matriarch gather her disparate grown-up children on the island where she runs a guest-house – only to commit suicide and leave them to it. “Thicker than Water is like Scandi-noir, but with Bergman and Strindberg behind the scenes,” says Walter. “It’s got a big, emotional, visceral take on family relationships – dark secrets and old wounds that resurface to virtually destroy the family. It’s a really intense piece.”
Walter believes that this kind of serial – often consumed in box-set binges – is giving people the greedy fiction fix once provided only by novels. “One episode is just not enough. And that type of fiction, built on cliff-hangers, is Dickens, it’s Balzac. Those novelists used to write like that, so you’d buy the next issue of the magazine,” he says. “These TV series are also something that unites people. In the same way as people join book clubs, now they discuss TV series – like The Killing, and sharing the knitting pattern of Sarah Lund’s jumper.”
Walter himself spent more than a year watching 3,500 hours of international television to make his choices. The result is a growing catalogue of foreign-language drama, both on TV and online. Series that air on Channel 4 or More4, such as Deutschland 83 and Spin, are then posted on Channel 4’s catch-up service, All4.
These dramas build into box sets online – where they’ll be available for an extended period. And other complete box sets, such as Heartless (above right) will only be available online.
Unlike Netflix and Amazon, Walter Presents is free. And it’s a hit, too. Alongside Deutschland 83’s great ratings, the online service had over 1 million views in its first two weeks. For Walter, these early successes are a big relief – especially as the venture bears his name. He protests, though, that that was Channel 4’s idea.
“I was quite scared of it,” says Walter. “However, this really is an act of passion for me. I’ll get it wrong sometimes and pick shows that people hate and no one will watch. So what? There’s no absolute right and wrong. I’m just trying to curate something I love.”